Monday, September 12, 2016

Youngstown Plan Steers Clear of Privatization. For Now.

The recently released plan for Youngstown City Schools had some encouraging things in it. A commitment to wraparound services. An idea to create a high school transition school for students entering high school. A professionalization of the workforce. A serious attempt to engage parents in their children's learning.

And, importantly, no obvious expansion of the mostly failing school choice experiment in Youngstown. Half the kids in Youngstown charters go to schools that perform worse overall on state metrics than Youngstown.

As we at Innovation Ohio suggested last month, Youngstown CEO Krish Mohip should follow evidence-based practices turning around Youngstown schools while trying to avoid the non-evidence-based practices, like relying more on school choice, which in Ohio, has not worked out as promised.

And, it looks like, for the most part, Mohip did stick to those principles. And while some of the stated plan goals are simply unrealistic (which I'll get to later), overall there is much to like with the initial plan.

Now to the details. The most glaring omission is one that Cleveland also neglected in its transformation plan: ask the state for more money to implement the plan. The problem in Youngstown is that I don't see the citizens of Youngstown passing a 15-mill property tax levy to make up for the state's lack of investment the way Cleveland's residents did.

So, for example, how will Mohip possibly be able to provide quarterly performance reviews of 100% of the district's teachers in two years -- a laudable goal -- (let alone weekly instructional feedback) with no additional funding to hire the necessary supervisors to conduct these reviews? Or, how will Mohip ensure that 85% of parents attend open houses in two years when there's no additional funding to pay for outreach coordinators who can be active in the city's neighborhoods? Or how will Mohip ensure all Youngstown children have a personalized learning plan in two years without any additional funding for the coordinators to organize such a massive undertaking? Or how will he pay for his proposed 9th Grade Academy to help kids transition to high school?

Again, all of those goals are laudable. They should be tried. But without additional state resources, it's going to be a struggle for Youngstown to meet them without radically altering job scopes for scores of district employees -- adding new responsibilities to already overloaded staff. Youngstown simply doesn't have the community resources of Cleveland, which was able to utilize substantial foundation and non-profit assistance to do many of the things Youngstown now wants to do.

But that doesn't mean the district shouldn't try.

It is also interesting that currently, 87.7% of the district's teachers are considered to be high performing and the plan's stated goal is to get that number up to 95% in two years. So while much of the plan entails doing more effective teacher evaluations (modeled after what Baltimore has been using for a few years), honoring exceptional performance, and requiring weekly, quarterly and annual teacher/leader feedback, the data suggest it's not teaching, for the most part, that's letting down Youngstown's kids.

In other words, if you were going to pour resources into Youngstown City Schools, the data suggest pouring tons of resources in a new teacher evaluation and tracking system may not be as critical, especially with no apparently new funding coming down the pike.

This brings me to another concern: the plan's call to review employee compensation to ensure "regional competitiveness." What if the review finds that Youngstown teachers make more than comparably prepared professionals? Does than mean Mohip will start ripping up contracts and paying teachers and other professionals less as he begins expecting more from them? Again, no indication one way or another yet.

But given this plan's origin in trying to primarily expand charter school options, it is indeed encouraging that there is no mention of "school choice" or "vouchers" or "charter school" in the 22-page document. That could be because a $71 million federal grant, which was largely intended to expand charters in Youngstown, has been held up by the U.S. Department of Education for several reasons. And once that money's freed up, it will be invested in Youngstown, as originally intended.

Or it could be that Mohip looked at the data and found that, unlike Chicago where he came from, there simply is not a critical mass of high performing charters in Youngstown. And maybe he is thinking that the best hope for parents and their children is to improve the Youngstown City Schools rather than hoping Ohio's nationally ridiculed charter school sector can ride in on a white horse (or White Hat, as the case may be).

That's a good sign that Mohip is actually paying attention to the realities on the ground in Youngstown. That's not to say there aren't some pretty unrealistic goals, even with unlimited funding, which Youngstown does not have.

While the Youngstown Vindicator's coverage called the plan "realistic," here are a few examples that left me scratching my head:

  1. The plan calls for 90% of district buses to pass State Highway Patrol inspection the first time. This year. Last year, 0% did.
  2. This year, the plan wants half of the district's employees' performance to be monitored through a data management system. Last year, no one was. As a City Council member in a community that is shifting to a new data management system for human resources for just a few score people, I can tell you this won't be an easy lift.
  3. Have 1/2 of all district teachers this year provide effective instruction as per the Baltimore system, which has yet to be adopted by the Academic Distress Commission. Again, adopting a new system during the year and expecting 1/2 of teachers (again, 87.7% of whom are already high performing, according to Mohip's report) to understand, adopt and excel with it is quite a lofty expectation.
  4. Ensuring that all kids' test scores and growth are measured every year from K-8, even in grades that aren't currently tested starting this school year seems like quite a lift. It costs the state about $760,000 a year to administer the tests it already does give to Youngstown students. Would the several additional batteries of tests the plan calls for be paid for by the state, or would Youngstown have to pay for them? Stay tuned.
  5. Going from 0 kids taking the PSAT to all sophomores taking it this year seems like a tough thing to achieve, if for no other reason than it costs $15 a student, which could prove a tough fee for parents to handle.
  6. There are several aggressive test score improvement goals throughout the plan that seem very challenging, such as increasing some proficiency rates by nearly 2-3 times in just a few years. Given test scores' nearly linear relationship with poverty, and Youngstown's distressingly high poverty level, it's tough to see these improvements happening, regardless of effort.
Although these goals seem destined to fail, it's good to shoot for the stars. Why not? 

But I have a couple long-term concerns. First of all is the legislation that took control of Youngstown from the people of that city and gave it to a state-appointed CEO requires great report card improvement in order for control to return to the people. And while the goals outlined by Mohip could lead to that improvement happening in a few short years, chances are without the necessary funding, the results will fall short -- sometimes far short -- of the goal. 

If these goals aren't met, then what?

Will Mohip turn to the ideologues? Will the test score pressure become too much for Mohip to resist the call of our state's mostly failing school choice options? Will whole swaths of teachers and principals get fired? Will cooler heads prevail?

We'll see.

But for now, it looks like the Youngstown CEO is moving in the right direction. And given where he could have gone (firing teachers, ripping up contracts, turning the keys over to Ohio's many failing charter school operators), that's a positive development.


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